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Gyasi Ross Speaks on the Power of Storytelling

“Storytelling is the most powerful tool in the world.”

That was the message that Blackfeet author, attorney, and storyteller Gyasi Ross delivered to Mid-Pen students at a special assembly sponsored by the Diversity Council this spring. Using examples ranging from the Native American fishing rights protests of the 1960s to the Black Lives Matter struggles of today, Ross told students that the surest path to social change is through storytelling.

A regular contributor to The Huffington Post, Gawker, and Indian Country Today, and the author of two books, Ross has spoken at hundreds of schools and universities and at major race and social justice conferences. 

Ross recounted the experience of his uncle, Billy Frank Jr., a Native American environmentalist and treaty rights activist who was arrested more than 50 times in his fight to protect the fishing rights granted by treaties dating to the 1850s.

Ross said that his uncle had his first run-in with game wardens at the age of fourteen. Tensions from the declining fish population had been starting to boil over. Unregulated commercial fishing and the development of hydroelectric dams were taking a toll on the salmon population, but white sportsmen laid the blame on the Native Americans. His uncle had been fishing for salmon, as he had always done, and as he was emptying his net, he was accosted by two wardens who shoved his face into the mud. 

At the time, Ross said, Native Americans were regarded as something out of history. “‘You people are supposed to be dead,’ they told my uncle. That got my uncle going. He believed it was his job to tell the story of the native people and that we are very much alive.” 

For his uncle, the battle for the salmon was the battle for the future of his people, and it became his life’s work. Fishing rights were not just about sustaining a healthy salmon population, but about maintaining the Native American way of life.

“When you encounter resistance to your story, you have one of two options: to recommit to telling your story with even greater force or to turn tail and run,” Ross said. “My uncle was never one to turn tail and run. By telling our story he changed the law of the land, and for his efforts was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 by President Obama.”

Ross also told students about Martin Delany, a 19th century African-American abolitionist, physician, and writer, who is little remembered today. In 1852 Delany wrote a book that argued that blacks had no future in the United States and suggested they should leave and found a new nation in the West Indies or South America. 

“The idea stirred a lot of controversy at the time, as many did not believe that African-Americans were capable to of governing themselves,” Ross said. “But if we don’t tell our aspirational stories – the story of Native Americans alive and well today, the story of a free colony of black people, the story of the first woman president – then they will never come true. We have to tell the stories that we aspire to, and we have to believe in these stories, because if we don’t, then they don’t stand a chance of every coming true.”

Ross ended by reminding students that, because of their education and growing up in the Bay Area, they are in a position of privilege. “It is a privilege to have a platform from which you can speak which you can speak the truth. Don’t be ashamed of your privilege. Don’t run from it, don’t duck it, don’t hide it. Embrace it, and use it to tell the stories that will help change the world.”